StrongHearts advocates are breaking new ground offering culturally-appropriate advocacy for Native American and Alaska Natives nationwide. Our featured advocate is Vanessa, who shares in our vision to return to our traditional lifeways where our relatives are safe, violence is eradicated and sacredness is restored.
Vanessa is a StrongHearts advocate who dives deep into her lived experience as a victim-survivor. She is determined not to be defined by her past and has the will to make a difference. She is an exemplary Native woman who changed the trajectory of her life. Through hard work and healthy choices, Vanessa was determined to overcome the hardship that comes from being raised in a home where domestic violence was prevalent.
Personal Experience with Domestic Violence“I grew up in low-income housing in Minnesota where I saw and heard physical violence and verbal/emotional abuse. [My parents] showed they loved each other by hitting each other,” she said and explained that she didn’t know what domestic violence was, but she knew what it looked like, what it sounded like and how it felt. Without positive role models, she thought violence was normal. Eventually, she found herself on the same path.
“When you’ve been through so many traumatic experiences starting from a young age you lose yourself. My domestic violence experience started with my very first boyfriend at 13 years old. From what I saw and heard growing up it was somehow what I thought was normal. Domestic violence followed me throughout my whole life and in every relationship from my teenage years into adulthood. I didn’t have role models growing up as a young woman and thought, this was the way life was supposed to be. This was my life.
Vanessa was in an abusive relationship, but alone in raising her four children. She started to use alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism. Try as she might escape substance abuse, she became an addict. She knew deep down this was not how she wanted to live. It was not who she wanted to be.
“I hurt myself, my kids and loved ones in the process,” said Vanessa. “I was having bad anxiety and decided I just couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to be happy and something told me I deserve to be happy.”
That was four years ago. After 18 years of experiencing domestic violence, Vanessa called a crisis hotline and started individual therapy at the Harriet Tubman Center in Minneapolis. From there she found the strength to embark on her own healing journey. She took time to heal and reflect on her life.
“I lived that traumatic life of chaos, drama and all that stuff and I learned to set up boundaries with family, friends and acquaintances,” said Vanessa. “When I learned to do that my whole life became what it’s supposed to be. I stopped the cycle of abuse in my own life and that’s when good things started to happen. I found purpose in my life. I knew that as a victim-survivor, I could use my experience to help others.”
Helping as a StrongHearts Advocate
Becoming a domestic and sexual violence advocate, Vanessa continued to learn more about how she can help her community. She found that what she had in common was more than just a coincidence. She knows what it feels like to feel helpless and alone. Suicidal ideation was a common thought running through her head, but as do most Native women – she found that she was stronger and more resilient than she ever thought possible.
“I knew that after everything I’ve been through, my life experience does not define me. No matter what a victim has been through, it does not define the person they were or who they want to become,” she said. “It is my job to be that listening ear and be that calm voice for victim-survivors when they need it. I want them to feel safe with whatever it is they need to share with me. I want them to find the help they need.”
Finding Purpose in Experience
Vanessa is glad that she was chosen to do this type of work and because she is open to sharing her experience she knows that it can be helpful to others.
“At the end of the day, there’s somebody else going through what I did. I didn’t know which way to go, but being around people who were survivors and talking with them gave me hope. As a Native advocate, I must stay true to myself by taking responsibility for who I am and how I carry myself,” she said, adding: “I found peace and serenity and so can others like me.”
It’s important to Vanessa that survivors know that they are not alone and that their lives matter. They need to know that it’s okay to set boundaries. Our people are rich in culture. We have what it takes to do or be whatever we want in life. We can pray, go to sweats, pow-wows or participate in other cultural ceremonies. Note: due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many in-person cultural activities have been canceled, however, there are many virtual resources available.
“Go in with a good heart and mind and know that victim-survivors deserve to live a happy and healthy life,” said Vanessa. “Healing starts with a lot of hard work and effort. Victim-survivors owe it to themselves to figure out what they want and need out of life.”
The Future of Advocacy
Our StrongHearts advocates have a vision for a brighter future. “To build a stronger community, I think we must create awareness around domestic and sexual violence. We need to break down barriers to our own success and to stop feeling as though we are less than others. As an advocate, I hope I can be the voice for those that feel they don’t have one and to guide those who know where they want to go but don’t know how to get there.
In my advocacy, I know that I must be knowledgeable and keep educating myself so that I can give the most accurate information and guidance to others. I know how much courage it takes to talk about domestic violence and that we as Native people need to honor that and treat victim-survivors with the utmost respect and dignity.”
“Being a StrongHearts advocate gave me the opportunity to give back to my community,” said Vanessa. “I want Native people to know that it’s never too late to start on their journey to healing. I want them to stand tall and be proud of being Native. We all have a place and a purpose in this world. We just need to find a way to get there.”